JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska’s capital city is trying a new approach to deal with its shoplifting problem: counseling.
The city plans to enter into agreements with willing participants to defer prosecution or sentencing pending completion of specific steps. The steps include setting and achieving self-identified goals and a shoplifting treatment program. Participants also will have to pay restitution.
The move follows legislative changes that restricted the use of jail time as a punishment and questions about the effectiveness of jail time as a deterrent.
The program is a partnership between the city law department and behavioral health and support organizations that will focus on repeat offenders.
Susanne DiPietro, executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council, said she was not aware of other programs like this one that use counseling to target repeat shoplifters. The program is based on practices shown to be effective for other groups of people, she said.
Amy Mead, the municipal attorney for the City and Borough of Juneau, said she is not sure if or how well the federally funded, one-year pilot program might work. “We have to try something,” she said.
An annual state crime report shows 1,212 larceny-thefts – a category that includes shoplifting and bike thefts – were reported in Juneau in 2016. That compares with 995 in 2015 and 740 in 2014. Before 2014, the number of larceny-thefts in the city had been gradually declining, from 1,279 in 2010, crime statistics show.
Statewide, the number of larceny-thefts increased from 15,156 in 2015 to 17,683 last year.
Some have blamed the state Legislature’s passage last year of a criminal justice overhaul. The new law among other things limits the use of jail time for low-level misdemeanors, such as thefts involving a value of less than $250.
Lawmakers this year considered changes following public outcry about crime, but they took no final action.
The impact of the 2016 law is unclear, DiPietro said. The state, which has been in a recession, is also facing what officials have called an opioid epidemic and has seen budget cuts that have affected prosecutors and law enforcement, she said.
“It’s really hard to know how all of that’s interacting with each other and/or how it may be affecting the crime rate,” DiPietro said.
The data she has seen on prosecuting and jailing low-level offenders indicate it’s not effective in deterring them, she said.
Juneau and the state have shared the load in prosecuting misdemeanors, and Juneau has taken on more as state budget cuts forced the district attorney to focus on more serious crimes, Mead said. Under the 2016 law, the municipal penalty had to match the state penalty, she said.
The pilot program hopes to begin accepting participants next month. The focus will be on an estimated 40 to 50 people seen as habitual offenders, Mead said.
Talia Eames is program coordinator for the Second Chance Reentry Program, which is run by the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and a partner in the pilot program.
There’s a misconception that the new program is about giving “free hugs to criminals,” Eames said. “It’s being compassionate, but still holding people accountable,” she said.
For local residents who might be wary of this approach, “I would just say that we have to do something different,” she said. “This is not going to make the problem worse.”